One of the things about having a search function is that it reveals what you haven’t written about, as well as what you have. I was surprised to find that I hadn’t covered this topic and I thought it might be useful if I did. I know that you all want to be barristers, but there is nothing wrong with articulating the reasons why – it often clarifies thinking and sheds new light on decisions yet to be made. It is also important because in recent years many of the city firms have recruited on the basis that you can join them and do nothing but advocacy.
Of course, for every advantage there tends to be a disadvantage and it is sensible to take those disadvantages into account when deciding on career paths. So, in no particular order I have listed below the factors that make the Bar appealing in my view. I have added, at the end of the post, some good reasons not to go to the Bar.
- I work for myself. For me, this is the number one issue. I have no objection to being beholden to someone to do the best job I possibly can – that is how barristers feel towards their clients. But I want my success measured by how well I do my job, not by how well I get on in the office. I do not want to feel that advancement requires the approbation of someone I dislike or don’t rate. I want to keep the money I earn instead of what someone else thinks I’m worth of the money I earn. I actually don’t mind calling someone ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ but I want to chose who that person is and the criteria adopted. I want to take the key decisions at the key moments. All those things together make my life rich, interesting and exciting.
- Linked to the above, I want control over my practice. Now, of course, there are some people who do have an influence over professional advancement and there are equally areas over which barristers have little control. But I decide what type of work I do and whether to take opportunities offered or whether those opportunities are to be passed up. I decide if I will take the fee on offer for a particular (non-criminal) case. Even junior barristers can do this – it is always a struggle with your clerk but it is one that can be won.
- I enjoy the camaraderie. The Bar in the provinces is an intensely friendly profession. We know the tiny, tiny minority who cannot be trusted and everyone else gets on. Your colleagues will cheerfully help you with your work, give you advice on how to approach the Judge with a tricky point and point you in the direction of recent authority. They will also gossip like mad (it’s a small profession) and laugh their heads off as you get a nose ender in cross-examination. You can fearlessly discuss your worst point with your opponent, knowing that he will not misuse the information – and you can often thereby save clients time, anguish and money.
- I enjoy the vocational element. I truly believe that what barristers do is useful. People need representation – they are often too unsophisticated or ill-educated to advance their own case and they are always too subjective. The more disgusting their beliefs or their behaviour, the more important it is that the jury or the Judge decides the case on the evidence and that the result is not determined because the legal profession turns its nose up. That is the arrogance and the tyranny of private law (the original meaning of the word ‘privilege’). I refuse to judge my clients – not because I am a moral void or because I like criminals or wrongdoers (one of the most disgraceful slurs to come from politicians seeking popularity) but because I believe that the law should be the same for everyone and that it ought to be someone’s job to make sure it is.
- I enjoy the flexibility. If I want to watch cricket all day and work all night then, if I’m not in Court, I can. No one makes me clock in. I can go on holiday when I like, providing I’m not letting anyone down. When I have lots of work to do I can work as many hours as I can physically manage. When I have less work to do I can take a long walk or go and see friends. I never have to go and do something just because it is important that I fill a set number of hours per day.
- My job is endlessly interesting. I meet lots of different people who do lots of different jobs. Most are interesting about at least parts of what they do. Even though the issues may repeat themselves, they do so in unlimited permutations of different facts and personalities. Each legal issue carries with it the need to ensure the evidence founds the submission, the need to counter ones opponent in terms of evidence, law and strategy and the need to carry the Judge with you. The case changes daily in court. Outside court it needs to be planned out, challenges foreseen, traps laid and bluffs undertaken.
- There is always the opportunity to improve. Measuring progress is one of the great pleasures or one of the great pains. But it is rare that there is no further opportunity to get it right next time. Plenty of people who do not shine at the beginning of their careers go on to achieve great things. And plenty who were future Lords of Appeal at 2 years call succumb to the pressures and go nowhere.
- There are negative reasons as well. The chief of these is that there is no other job that offers such a chance to do advocacy. Solicitors do some, but they are not usually the best people to do a long or difficult trial and very few have the experience and expertise required. They are also frequently more expensive – especially if a solicitor is also required. The overheads carried by solicitors are vast compared to those of the Bar and the prices charged reflect that. Clients who want the best people and the best value usually end up with a barrister. Plus which, expertise atrophies unless frequently exercised. The discussion and testing of approaches and tactics which goes on in Chambers is constant and often informal. Just because it happens over a drink or a coffee does not mean it doesn’t count though. Solicitors do not seem to have the same approach or the time to adopt it.
- Being a barrister is still the best way to become a Judge. How many other careers offer the chance to start a new job at 50+? You may not want to, but the possibility is there and how many people are confident, aged 25, about their wants and aspirations 25 years later?
- I enjoy the competition. Most barristers are bright, focussed, competitive, prepared to take risks and prepared to confront difficulties. Pitting oneself against those people is fun.
If you find these reasons bizarre, or they do not appeal to you or they appal you, then it may be that you have a different take or it may be that this is not the job for you. The lack of security, in particular, can be hard to take. It’s nice to keep what you earn – the corollary is that if you don’t work you don’t earn at all and the Chambers expenses still have to be paid. Your holiday is unpaid. Illness can be financially devastating.
Now for reasons to go to the Bar which are rubbish.
- You will earn loads of money. Actually you probably won’t. But even if you do, it strikes me as a poor reason. You won’t enjoy the Bar unless you see it as more than an opportunity to earn. If you don’t enjoy it you probably won’t be much good at it. What’s more, you need a life. As time goes on you will hopefully acquire a life-partner/signifcant other/spouse. You will want to spend time with that person and they will want to spend time with you. The Bar makes that difficult enough as it is. If you are so motivated by earning large sums that you have to take work on holiday, or miss birthdays then your personal life will turn to dust. If that doesn’t bother you, you will be odd.
- You will be perceived as very important. Wrong again. You have an important job but that is not the same thing. Your criminal client will try to forget you whatever the result. Your personal injury or family client will be grateful to you if you win, and not if you lose. And the gratitude will be fleeting. Your corporate client will regard you as an employee of sorts. This country barely respects doctors any more – lawyers are ranked with estate agents and politicians.
- You will bear the flaming sword of truth. Unlikely. Every case has a loser. You will represent scoundrels, liars, opportunists, people of flexible morality and people who wouldn’t recognise their conscience if it stood next to them and screamed ‘Hello, I’m Jiminy Cricket’. That is why I suggest your commitment is to the process – leave the substantive decisions on right and wrong to the Judge and the Almighty, both of whom have had many years of practice…
Comments welcome, as ever.